Art & art criticism / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Demolition: Zhang Dali in Conversation (Artist Interview)

translated from the Chinese by Mai Mang

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Zhang Dali (see some of his works in this issue of Cha) by Mai Mang, David Rong and Russell C. Leong and is translated from the Chinese by Mai Mang. The interview, held in New York on April 4, 2011, was in preparation for two exhibits of the artist work, Demolition: Second History (Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut, April 18-May 8, 2011) and Into East River(s) (Hunter College, New York, New York, June 2, 2011).
"A Great City Has Been Demolished"

Mai Mang: Zhang Dali is a leading figure in contemporary Chinese art. Our exhibition of Zhang Dali this time at Connecticut College will have three parts. The first part is on his series Demolition. Dali started to work on the Demolition series in 1995 and continued until…

Zhang Dali: I started in 1995 in Beijing, and continued, in fact, until about 2005 and 2006. I did it for ten years. Then I stopped. It had a lot to do with Beijing's redevelopment. Beijing was originally an imperial capital, a well-laid out city. Now, due to economic development plus various power negotiations, the city has been totally destroyed. When I saw the city being demolished, I felt pain. Everyone who was cultured or educated would think of this issue: that is, we are absolutely ruthless at demolishing our culture, which can be painful. This cannot be redeemed with money. We say: this house is too small, too shabby, so we need to build more high-rise towers to accommodate more people. But your destruction will let future generations lose cultural memories, which cannot be exchanged for money. So at that time I started to paint such subjects in Beijing, demolish these walls, and carve out the figure of heads on the walls, which merged together with the demolished buildings, and allowed people to see the Beijing scenes through the heads.

I recently read Bei Dao's new memoir about Beijing, Open the City Gate, which resonated with me greatly. I read it a few months ago and in one sitting. I had this thought: every intellectual, I mean Chinese intellectual, is without a homeland culturally, because we're like wandering ghosts, unable to find our landing points. That is very painful, because our culture and city have been demolished, and what we like is not recognized. Such pain of being wandering ghosts is hard for others to understand. When I read Bei Dao, he said: "A great city has been demolished. But what is done is done, and cannot be undone. We can only recall its old flavor, its feeling." In his book, Bei Dao mentioned that during his childhood he played and caught fish in the city moat. In fact we all had similar experiences when we were kids. Now it's all destroyed, gone.

"That Human Head Is Empty, Without Brains"

ZD: After 1992, my thoughts changed greatly. By then I realized that art is art, classical art is art, modern art is also art. As a contemporary artist you must pay attention to what is happening around you. Your body and your spirit must be relevant to what's happening around you. You cannot close yourself off in a small room and fantasize that you're someone from the Song Dynasty, or Sui Dynasty or Han Dynasty. That diminishes life's meaning. Of course I don't oppose some others who think or do this. But for me, I must step out my studio and pay attention to the city I live in. You must see what kind of relationship you have with the people around you. In fact, I wanted to find my frame of reference. That is, among this crowd, in this culture, who we are, what we count for. Only in this way does our art have strength. Of course this exploration has a lot to do with my interest in literature. It's not just about painting or something like imitating Picasso, not just about external forms, but more about an inner voice telling you that you should care about this.

Since 1992 until now I experimented with many styles and forms: sculpture, photography, painting and, later, historical archive studies. But in spite of all of such external styles and forms, behind all of these, I only care about one thing: As Chinese in this culture, in this modern society, who are we? What is our position? This includes our position on urban demolition and relocation. We always say we're masters of the city; in fact, we're subalterns of the city. Because every time the city develops and plans to do something, we're the last one to get informed, and we're forced to leave our homes. If a city wants to change, shouldn't it allow its residents to express their opinions? Shouldn't it allow its residents to say that this or that site shouldn't be demolished? Of course nobody would listen to our opinions. So I think we are just subalterns. At that time, I used graffiti to express my indignation. I painted that human head which was not only about myself, but about many people. That human head is empty, without brains—it's on the wall like a phantom, it exists, but it also doesn't exist. You can demolish it, destroy it the very next day.

"My Graffiti Is A Protest"

ZD: There are several points I want to emphasize regarding the meaning of this project. First of all, I wanted to challenge, because before me there was no graffiti art in Chinese cities. Second, I insisted upon my previous thoughts; that is, I want to expand art to the city itself, to the environment you live in. Thirdly, I was against demolition. That proves my graffiti is a protest. These several factors in the end become the supporting pillars of my graffiti. Otherwise, if it's purely a dry graffiti, or a painting on the wall, then it's not that meaningful. In addition, there is the time factor. For example, at that time I did it anonymously. Why anonymous? I couldn't jump out immediately. If you jumped out, police would arrest you. It was that time in China. So I was anonymous. When I read newspapers, the police said that if we ever caught this guy, we would surely give him a twenty-year term in prison. Really I could have gotten a twenty-year sentence.

MM: Did you tell your friends about this project?

ZD: For entirely two years I hadn't told anybody. But later on some friends gradually learnt of it. Some even said: "You did it just in order to get famous, right? Why don't you just go to spray your graffiti on Tiananmen tomorrow?" Of course many people would immediately hold such thoughts. But I told them art is not like this. Art has its own dimension of time. You have to prove your existence through your art and patience. You have to tell those who dislike your art to gradually learn to like your art, to acknowledge that this is art. I think this time factor is very important. You have to convince those who don't understand you, who dislike you, you cannot rely upon your impulse, you have to act slowly. That's why I did graffiti for ten years. From when there was no graffiti in Beijing to at last they liked my graffiti and everybody took pictures in front of the graffiti. Somebody from some district government even called me up and said: "Please come over and do some graffiti on our wall." So, in the end, in 2006, I quit it, because it had lost its challenge, had already become a fashion, a trend.

"To See Art Is To See Oneself"

MM: Thanks, Dali. Our exhibition of your work will be held at two dates and locations. The first is your solo exhibition at Connecticut College on April 18th, entitled Demolition: Second History and co-curated by David Rong and myself. The other is at Hunter College on June 2nd, at an event entitled Into East River(s) and co-organized by Professor Russell Leong and myself. Russell, David and myself will all be there on June 2nd and the discussion on that day will mainly focus on your Demolition series. You will, however, be absent on both occasions. Can we ask you to say something to our audiences on both occasions in front of the camera? What do you wish them to see in your work?

ZD: First of all, let me extend my gratitude to all three of you. I know it's a lot of preparation and work to curate a show. So, thanks to David, thanks to Mai Mang, thanks to Professor Leong. As for my words to the audience: I feel that the audience can in fact see their own inner-self through my art. Why is it called demolition? What is demolition? Demolition is a process of reconstruction. But where to start this reconstruction? This is important. For the last three decade of reform and opening in China, there needs only one Chinese character to define its condition, that is "chai" or "demolition." I truly hate this Chinese character. But how to reconstruct? Not just demolition and destruction. One must have a plan on how to reconstruct beforehand. In my work, everyone can search inside his or her own inner-self to discover how he or she can start this process of reconstruction. This is important. To see art is to see oneself, not just the art work per se. An isolated photograph or a painting itself doesn't carry that much meaning alone. But through it, like a mirror, you can shine and reflect on your own inner-self. This is the most important thing.

Russell C. Leong (in English): Zhang Dali—there are now many Chinese living outside of China—in Europe, in the US and elsewhere. Some are migrants, legal or illegal, etc. What can you say to those many Chinese who live outside of China?

ZD: I feel it's the same for everyone, including overseas Chinese. If one lives not only for the sake of mere living, but wanting to think about something above it, my work will hold meaning for them, will let them feel that my work has great relevance to their identity. For example, why does one want to emigrate illegally? Why does one want to leave one's own home country? Why does one want to take the risk to make a new life in another culture? Also, what's your relationship to this other culture? Do you receive more from this culture or from the other culture ultimately? Where do you place your inner, spiritual center ultimately? I think they are all relevant. Of course, for other people who only want to make a better living, who don't want think of these questions and find them too exhausting, my work doesn't matter to them. Otherwise my work is very, very relevant.

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